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Lake Region State College Sees Future in Wind, Renewables

The North Dakota institution's wind energy technician program is preparing students for local careers in a renewable energy industry that seems poised for growth as renewables become cheaper and more efficient.

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Students in LRSC's Wind Energy Technician program listen to a lecture.
John B. Crane
(TNS) — If there are two quantities North Dakota has a surplus in, one would be geographic space.

The other? Wind.

This is the opinion of Lake Region State College President Doug Darling, especially regarding the latter.

"Ten years ago, they were saying North Dakota could be the 'Saudi Arabia of wind' ... the American Wind Energy Association used to have maps up that showed the most wind potential and pulled right down through North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Basically, where all the wind farms are," Darling said.

Of course, wind is not a North Dakota-specific phenomenon. However, what wind has become synonymous with over the past decade-plus has been energy generation, including that of renewable energy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electricity generated from renewable energy resources is now less expensive than power generated from more traditional sources, including fossil fuels.

With an increasing field comes an even deeper need for workers to man the technologies for it. Renewable energy, including that of wind, is no different.

Luckily, Lake Region State's Wind Energy Technician program, captained by program director Jay Johnson, has hopped on board in expanding upon the growing industry. Before becoming program director 12-plus years ago, Johnson worked for NextEra Energy as a wind technician. From his tower-climbing days to his machine maintenance ones, Johnson understood the significance of needing a program to provide the necessary quality to teach future wind technicians.

"Through hours of discussions, brief phone calls, chats, time spent together, reviewing our lab and advisory board meetings ... the culmination of all of that resulted in our program over time having improved curriculum to the point that we are in locked step with our industry partners today," Johnson said. "I think we know exactly what future wind techs need because when our students leave here, they most often get job offers before they finish school. In most cases, when they come for a one-year certificate, they are getting job offers before Christmas."

Although smaller in scale than other programs in the country, Lake Region State's program has done its part in preparing the next batch of wind technicians.

This upcoming year, Blair Clementich, one of 11 first-year students in the program, is striving to become a future wind technician. In Clementich's mind, the potential of wind energy will only grow as it continues to be a topic of conversation on the national stage. As a result, workers will need to be ready in preparation for the field's potential expansion.

"In my vision ... I only see it growing as something that is going to become very big in the future because I know renewable energy is becoming very big, especially in politics right now," Clementich said. "Especially with wind energy, I could see the field becoming huge, and they will need more workers to work in these wind farms."

From the use of its sole wind turbine, Lake Region State has recognized firsthand the power of renewable energy. Not only does the turbine create the energy necessary to operate the entire college campus, but it also provides an energy surplus. This surplus, in turn, nets a profit the college can utilize to expand upon education, including that of the program.

"President Darling negotiated with Otter Tail Power Company to connect our wind turbine's output directly to our power meter," Johnson said. "When our turbine is producing power, it physically turns our meter backward. Then, every month, President Darling cases a check from Otter Tail Power Company. It is as good as it gets. About a third of our electricity, we produce from our wind turbine operates the college, and about two-thirds of it comes back to the college in the form of a revenue check from Otter Tail Power Company."

While the future leans toward more emphasis on renewable energy, the need to prioritize programs already in place is also of utmost importance. To both Darling and Johnson, Lake Region State's program will not only aid in publicizing the need to capitalize on wind energy.

It will also give North Dakota the opportunity to live up to its "Saudi Arabia of wind" mantra.

"At some point, we are going to run out of fossil fuels," Darling said. "There is a finite amount of coal and a finite amount of oil. So anytime you have a finite amount of something, you are going to burn through it and run out of it, and you are going to need to have an alternative method to do it."

"I hope, and if I have any role to play in it, we are going to be locked at the hip with our industry partners and grow," Johnson said. "We are going to stay right there and connect with North Dakota kids with these top-flight jobs."

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